Friday, June 30, 2017

Christ Comes to Coaltown


Author’s Note: This story first appeared in Leisuresuit.net on February 21, 2000.  I always liked it, and it’s worthy of reprint now.  From what I gather, Whatsyourname  is still around, taking the concept of Jesus into new territory as the Dude must certainly be somewhere in his 50’s. 
****

"And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?"

-- Luke, 24:13-18



Emmaus is a good ways south of the Coal Region in Northeast Pennsylvania. Down around Bethlehem. And Nazareth, made famous by The Band when Levon and Robbie pulled into for salvation via a new guitar at the Martin factory. All they would have seen heading South on Route 81 was woods, farms, Golden Arches and small towns in the distance.

Had they left the interstate, they'd have been amazed how an approaching town, through tangles of tree branches and telephone wires, resembled some small Eastern European village, with the bulbous, golden domes of Russian Orthodox churches and angled steeples rising over factories and houses. Each town would look the same, but somehow different, as even the blank slate of a shantytown like Shaft or William Penn would mean civilization after a few hard miles of great black slag heaps (soon to be gone thanks to coal regeneration plants). The Molly Maguires traveled these back roads in the late 1800's, before an undercover detective and the hangman crushed their murderous coal miners' rebellion.

The long arms of Philly and New York don't reach this far. The suburban sprawl and six-figure restored barns of the southern part of the state haven't seeped north. I grew up thinking Scranton and Wilkes Barre were big cities to the north but see them now for the even-larger coal towns they are. The one or two ski resorts are miniscule compared to the tourist chalets in the Poconos. West of the Poconos and east of Eden.

"HAZLETON, PA. He appeared out of the blue back in October, clad only in a dirty white robe as he walked barefoot along the two-lane highway into this struggling former coal town. Folks pointed at first as the man with the shoulder-length hair and scruffy beard preached to whoever would listen. Before long, though, many in this largely Roman Catholic community were embracing him as a holy man."

-- "Some See Hope in Mysterious Preacher," Joann Loviglio, Associated Press, January 29, 2000

I can see him now in the dim yellow light of a firehouse hall. The bingo cage and microphone sitting on a card table off to the side of the plywood stage. The firetruck smell of rubber and metal seeping from the garage next door. Creaks and scrapes of folding metal chairs opening on a cement floor. The taps at the bar turned off for this holy night, and the regulars in their baseball hats and blaze-orange hunting vests grumbling. The halo of a Pepsi clock glowing over his head.

Or maybe he's in a field. People milling around him, where they normally gather for turkey shoots and block parties, kids hunting for Easter eggs, and a cover band with umlauts in its name playing Skynyrd and Springsteen in the summer. The faces, hard and round, shadows of the Ukraine and Ireland, with bifocals and wrinkles, rosary beads and little black Bibles clutched in hand, gazing back at this man in nothing but a white robe and sandals in the dead of winter. Turn a six-pack of Yuengling into the blood of Christ. A box of Mrs. T's Pierogies into His body.

According to the A.P., when anyone asks his name, he replies "What's your name?" He says it's part of a Hebrew tradition not to reveal your name to someone until you're their friend. So the locals now call him: "What's YourName". His real name, according to a police affidavit, is Carl J. Joseph, 39. I've seen his face in a picture. Like Christ as traditional surfer dude. Ted Neeley and Willem Dafoe. He's got the look, even a year shy of forty. But where was Christ all those years, after teenage sparring in the temple with the rabbis and before a three-year lunge at earthly authority so burning and desperate even his own followers called for his head? "What's your name" is a Hebrew tradition? It's also a line from a David Bowie song that Pontius Pilate would have liked.

The newspaper says he's been traveling for 9 years, through 47 states and 13 countries. But he's never stayed in one place for so long before. He spoke to 2,000 people once in Hazleton, and it's not uncommon to see dozens of people "standing in a field at 2 a.m. listening to him preach. "He turns over all money and gifts he receives to local parishes, except for sandals he received recently because he did not own a pair of shoes.

"He said he will remain in the area as long as there is a need for his words."

-- from the AP article

I left when there was no longer a need for my words. Or at least I was filled with enough anger, boredom and resentment that whatever I had to say wasn't going to do anyone any good, and I had to go away. Back then I blamed it on the place, that I had "outgrown" it in some sense and had to move on. And maybe that was true simply in the sense of leaving home, wherever it may have been. But I can look back now and see that I had to outgrow whoever I was much more than the Coal Region itself. That sense of abandonment haunts and comforts me to this day. 1978, a good decade before I left. My brothers and I would sit on the steps of a mausoleum in the graveyard by the church. Bagging it because our relentlessly Irish Catholic grandmother had a debilitating stroke, preventing her from attending Mass. Our sister was still going through the motions, although that wouldn't last. Our father was doing much the same, only with the benefit of a car. And our mother was a filthy Protestant, so she was already hellbound and didn't count.

We got dressed up every Sunday morning, left at quarter to nine, and hung around talking about rock stars and school. Occasional parishioners passing by would glare at us. They didn't know teenagers like being glared at. We lived. The parish priest at that time was later nailed for possessing child pornography, and he was in the pictures, too. The church folded a few years back. My friend George bought it for a song. He didn't want any freaks moving in next door.

Here's a picture I clipped from a local newspaper and held for years before it turned too yellow: a group of Catholic school children re-enacting Christ's agonizing walk up Calvary Hill. Roman centurions in wire-frame glasses and shag haircuts, bearing plastic Star Wars lasers and trashcan lids. The Virgin Mary in a headband and two-tone saddle shoes. Christ, a pasty-faced 12-year-old, bearing his cardboard cross, wearing a white sheet and a pair of Nike running shoes. They do roughly the same show in Gordon every Easter, only with adults. What I always wondered: If this reenactment were to be authentic, shouldn't most of the crowd be bawling out taunts like "King of the Jews" and "crucify him" and throwing stones at "Christ," even if they're only styrofoam chunks painted to look like stones?

"SHENANDOAH -- Gary A. Moses, 42, said when driving to Mahanoy City on Friday, he saw What's Your Name walking the road. 'It was bitter,' he said. 'It takes a lot to walk in these conditions with sandals and a robe,' he said. He stopped to offer him a ride but the nomad refused. 'His reasoning for not taking a ride is he said that's how he meets people.'

-- "300 Hear Nomad's Message," by Stephen J. Pytak, Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, February 2, 2000.

The only Buddha I meet on the road back there is a guy named Buddy. Rumor has it he spent an afternoon hanging out at the bottom of a swimming pool as a boy, and is lucky to be alive, but is slightly brain damaged as a result. He thumbs it everywhere. It seems to be his purpose in his life. You'd have to be nuts to pick him up. He has a shock of red hair, and his rocking body motions let you know something's slightly off. He's often wearing a bright red Philadelphia Phillies warm-up jacket. No one knows where Buddy goes. He just goes. And he never gets there. As Woody Guthrie must have known every Dust Bowl backroad, Buddy surely knows even the abandoned, dilapidated mining roads in the Coal Region. Buddy's going to be there long after What's Your Name is gone. I suspect one day he'll be thumbing my hearse as it passes on the road to the cemetery. Then again, much like Christ, Buddy has more reason to fear the motives of those nearest him than the capricious whims of omnipotent rulers:

"TAMAQUA -- The 27-year-old Tamaqua man who allegedly robbed and repeatedly stabbed a hitchhiker with a screwdriver Wednesday morning remains today in Luzerne County Correctional Facility in lieu of $75,000 bail.

Tedd Richard Fredericks, of West Broad Street, was arraigned before District Justice Joseph D. Zola, of Hazleton, on charges of aggravated assault, three counts of robbery, simple assault and theft by unlawful taking or disposition. The victim, Harold 'Buddy' Klinger, also of Tamaqua, was treated at Hazleton General Hospital for numerous lacerations and a broken right hand. Klinger is originally from the Ashland area, according to Tamaqua Police Chief George B. Woodward, who said the man is known for hitchhiking and panhandling in the Tamaqua area.

According to the affidavit of probable cause filed by Corporal Brian S. Tobin, a state trooper at Hazleton, the attack was initiated when Fredericks offered Klinger a ride for $6 when he saw him standing along Route 309 near Tamaqua. Tobin said Klinger knows Fredericks because they reside in the same apartment building, so he agreed to the ride. They then picked up Fredericks' mother in Hometown and took her to work at J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills, he said. After dropping her off, the two drove back to Tamaqua for gas, then headed back to Hazleton, he said.

'They drove on Interstate 81 and got off at the Hazleton exit,' said Tobin, who spoke with the stabbing victim. 'Klinger said they made a couple of turns and didn't know where they were. Then Fredericks stopped the car to go to the bathroom.' Fredericks then exited the vehicle and opened the trunk. He called Klinger to the back of the car and asked him if he did drugs. When Klinger said no, Fredericks began stabbing him around the head with a screwdriver, Tobin said. According to Tobin, Klinger didn't see the weapon at first, but when he started to get stabbed by Fredericks, he attempted to flee, but the attacker jumped on him and continued stabbing.

'Fredericks then took approximately $380 from Klinger and drove off, leaving him behind,' Tobin said."

-- "Tamaqua Man Charged in Stabbing," Chris Dean, Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, 2/3/00

There are strange things about the Coal Region reporters will never pick up. Having been born and raised there for 20 years, I'm not even sure I have. Forget about the accent, a strange, guttural mix of Irish and Slavic. I can't imitate it, although I sometimes drop hints of it when back there for a few days. Mahanoy City is famous for always being on fire. And for once having their Christmas tree right in the middle of the main street, and it would invariably get wiped out every few years by a drunk driver. Old coalcrackers pronounce it "Mock-annoy." Shenandoah is the heart of the Coal Region, if not the head. "462 da fuck" is a popular local saying, the town's area code, stated with profane emphasis. What amazes me about What's His Name--how he didn't get locked up in the hoosegow for vagrancy and then given a ride to the edge of town the next day. This unnerves me. Makes me feel like King Herod, and the pharaohs before him. Are people in the Coal Region easily led astray? No. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find people more stubborn. I know the hardcore coalcrackers, the factory workers who never make the papers unless it's holding a trophy or the antlers of a dead buck, are having a good laugh over What’s Your Name. But I would say that as in any small town, curiosity runs wild in a situation like this, and it doesn't hurt that What's Your Name is pushing all the right spiritual buttons. I'd imagine a majority of the audience at his shows are Christians; the rest just want a piece of the action. And they see a man who is not Christ, but gives good scripture anyway.

I've known Paul Rieder for a few years now, a gentleman farmer in the wilds of southeast New York state who's also a fine musician. One of his songs is called, "Jesus Died at 33- 1/3." He and his wife, Heidi, have traveled extensively, and it's his habit to keep journals of these trips. It was Paul who brought my attention to What's Your Name's saga with the AP article that has touched off a media frenzy, with Time, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and ABC News hot on the trail. He sent me the AP article, along with his journal entry from a trip to Mexico:

3/27/97

Palenque and Misol-Ha, Chiapas, Mexico

It takes a bit to find out how to get to the waterfall at Misol-Ha without spending a lot of money. Everybody seems to want us on some kind of $50 package tour with all the tightlipped sunburned Germans. Finally, we decode the local schedule and get on a chicken-class bus--telling the driver "Crucero Misol-Ha" a few times so he'll remember to stop there—and slowly wait for the bus to Tila to fill. It's an ancient school bus painted bright blue (inside and out).

About half an hour in the bus stops in the middle of the jungle--not a building or path in sight--and on gets a white hippie guy dressed only in a thin blanket--the polyester kind found in bad motels. He sits down in the aisle up front. I know immediately that he's getting off with us.

So of course it's just the three of us there at Crucero Misol-Ha for the two miles or so to the water. He starts up a friendly conversation--he's American. Did we know there was a Rainbow Gathering at Misol-Ha this week? No, we did not. Turns out he's been on the Rainbow trail for six years now--no vocation, no money, and unless he's hidden some back there in the jungle, no clothing except a blanket. He expounds his philosophical position--he's essentially a holy fool, constantly moving around (Central America these past six months), going to these gatherings, sleeping in the wilderness and eating whatever he finds. (Maybe the Mexicans feed him 'cause he looks like Jesus.) He asks us what we do and Heidi says we're farmers--he thinks she said "performers," then laughs when we correct him, singing to himself, "Am I a farmer, am I a star?" We chat some about farming. He asks us our names.

"Paul and Heidi. And yours?"

"What'syourname?"

"Um ... Paul and Heidi. And you are ..."

"What'syourname?"

Aha. I laugh and he laughs too. It seems that What'syourname is his nomde-Rainbow -- sort of a litmus test for a person's tolerance and humor.

We arrive at the falls: it's a much grander, jungly version of Hamilton Pool in Texas, a big collapsed grotto with veils of water pouring into a deep cool lake. It's around 95 now and very humid. Looks like the bulk of the hippies have taken off. What'syourname has a baggie with his passport and some money, but he doesn't have enough to pay the entrance fee at the park, so we pay for him. He then gives me all the money that he has and won't take it back, saying that he's held on to it for too long anyway. I'm wondering what the hell I'm supposed to do with this hippie's pile of pesos, if I should buy him a drink or something. But there is no one around selling drinks. What'syourname dives in the pool, blanket and all, and that's the last we see of him.

P.S. There's a picture with the article, and it's definitely the same guy. I feel like I should send him a couple of pesos.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The Dead Files

God bless Amazon Prime.  There are times when I wonder why I have it, but then the are times like now, when they exclusively carry the new Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, that it all makes sense.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed watching this, warts and all.


The warts?  Maybe “lack of warts” might be a better description.  Not necessarily warts: there’s a lot missing.  I was waiting for a good 20-minute segment on their insane trip to play at the pyramids in Egypt in 1978 (which I read about in real time via Rolling Stone as a 70’s teenager).  Some legendary band associates are glossed over, and infamous wives of Jerry are completely missing.  Entire albums, particularly in the 70’s, aren’t even mentioned, particularly post Workingman’s Dead.  I wouldn’t mind all this, save an entire episode is dedicated solely towards their legendary fans, The Deadheads.

And that’s a complete waste of film when there’s so much other far more important ground that needs to be covered in a documentary of this size and scope.  I didn’t truly get into The Dead until well into the 90’s, after Jerry died.  I can’t recall the exact time or place, but I remember hearing “Box of Rain” in somebody’s apartment, and it struck me light a thunderbolt.  One of those album tracks that rarely got played on AOR radio in the 70’s or 80’s.  The clouds parted for me, rushed out and bought Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.  And thus I became a fan.  If you’re skeptical of The Dead’s greatness, buy only those two albums.  They aren’t all you need, but they’re the best.

Why wasn’t I a fan in the 70’s or 80’s?  Was I not exposed to their music?  Sure, I was.  I think Brother J might have even had that standard-issue greatest hits set from the time.  (Brother M, I’m certain, thought they were horseshit, although in fairness he seemed to think roughly the same of most 60’s bands and focused in on his 70’s heroes like Bowie and Rundgren.)  I constantly heard songs like “Truckin” and “Casey Jones” on the radio, to a lesser degree tracks like “Ripple” and “Uncle John’s Band.”  It was usually the same handful of tracks, over and over and over.  No other album tracks.  Ever.  No “transcendent” live tracks, ever.  (Commercial FM radio stations surely would not have played bootleg live material at the time, although they would play cool stuff like King Biscuit Flower Hour concerts.)  I liked those handful of songs.  (I love them now.)  In real time I was hearing stuff like “Shakedown Street” … which wasn’t quite doing it for me!

Back then?  In my mind, as a kid in the 70’s, there was a whole hippie stigma attached to The Grateful Dead that I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around.  I respected them, but only because I was religiously instructed to do so by the waning counter-culture powers that be (like Rolling Stone).  I thought Jerry Garcia was an affable and likable enough character, but I had no concept of just how talented a guitarist and songwriter he was.  I suspect even if you had exposed me to the good stuff, the tracks that floor me now, it wouldn’t have made sense in my 70’s adolescent mind.

It was the 1980’s that cryogenically froze The Dead for me, that whole decade and halfway through the 90s, until Jerry passed on, when that immense door quietly swung all the way open.  College should be a time of great discovery for anyone smart enough to recognize four years of relative freedom compared to the prison of high school, and the anticipation of getting by in “the real world” when it all ended.  It surely was for me; it opened me up like a flower.  Musically?  So much stuff happened, and not just with 60’s music.  Although I will say, it wasn’t until then that Bob Dylan made any sense to me, and became an overnight god.  He wasn’t alone.  (That massive Atlantic Soul series of the mid-80s affected me just as much as any white 60’s recording artists, maybe even more so as it opened me up to a whole different space and feel that rock music could possibly offer.) Bob Dylan’s classic mid-60’s period, that was a guy who wasn’t fucking around, or fucking around so cosmically that you had to stop and marvel at his ingenuity.  If he was stoned, it was in a much more enlightened, deep, human way than whatever general hippiedom appeared to offer.  That music felt real to me in a direct, immediate way.  Still does.

A huge cross section of the 1960’s opened up to me in college in the 1980’s, although I already had an overwhelming affection for the decade from being raised in the 70’s: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, Hunter Thompson. Tom Wolfe, Vonnegut, and so on. 

The Dead?  Nothing.  Why?  One word: Deadheads.

I might have referenced this incident before, but I knew a girl, Elizabeth, who was a staunch English major, very clean cut, very much into poetry, very much a proper, intelligent young woman who seemed like she would have been much more at home at Princeton or Yale than Penn State, which was and is a bit of a yahoo school.  Shit, I went there one third out of family tradition, one third because it was eminently affordable (at the time, although I gather that’s changed), and one third because the football team kicked ass.  (Boy, would we get an unforeseen wakeup call further on down the road.)

We knew each other at our branch campus, and we went on knowing each other when we moved up to the much larger main campus our junior year.  I found work as an editorialist on the campus paper, and had a blast doing so.  One day I was typing up one of my columns in the basement, talking to one of the photographers on the paper.  I can’t even remember his name, but he was a very cool, slightly older guy … think Frederic Forrest in Apocalypse Now.  He didn’t look like Forrest, but he had the exact same vibe about him, slinky and cool, like a cartoon character from a Ralph Bakshi movie come to life.  I really liked that guy and respected his opinions.

Lo and behold, he said, here comes my girlfriend, and Elizabeth walks in the room.  Our minds were blown.  I knew and liked both of them, a lot, although I was surprised that she would find herself with a guy so comparatively worldly and a bit wild.  We bantered for a bit and immediately agreed to have dinner at “their place” that weekend.  Man, she was living with the dude!  This was a lot of information to take in, given that I thought she spent her nights playing chess with a bust of Alexander the Great, or something.

That Saturday rolled around, and I went to their apartment off campus for dinner.  It’s always awkward for people that age to have an adult-style dinner only with each other.  For one, we barely knew how to make real food, beyond ramen and canned goods.  I can’t remember what we had, but it had that stilted feel you get of a few people in their early 20’s acting as adult as they possibly could.  Wine flowed, another shock, I recalled her being a strict teetotaler at the branch campus.  We didn’t get hammered, just pleasantly drunk.  The conversation was nice, what we were reading, our classes, the enormous changes we were sensing in ourselves over the past six months, etc.

Dessert times rolled around.  Hey, Bill, would you like to listen to some music?  You know me, of course I would.

Elizabeth pulled out one of those medium-sized black leather cases that people would carry cassette tapes in.  Everyone had these in the 80’s as cassettes had become the medium of choice, a lot more mobile than vinyl, playable in cars, etc.  Most guys had these cases in their cars filled with their favorite albums and mixes.  She opened up that leather case …

… and every single cassette had the xeroxed symbol of a skull with a lightning bolt on it.  I knew exactly what that meant: these people were Deadheads, and all they listened to was live bootleg recordings of The Grateful Dead.  Nothing else.  Not The Allman Brothers.  Not prog.  Not metal.  Not punk.  Surely nothing recent.  Not even Dead studio albums.  Only Dead live bootlegs.

They may as well have pulled out a baby goat, slit its throat, smeared the doomed animal’s blood over their naked torsos and started howling … it had the same effect on me.  Shit.  Elizabeth.  The dude I thought was so cool from the paper.  Deadheads!  No.  Just no, man, this can’t be.  It was an exact photo negative of being side-swiped by Born Again Christians playing “cool” until they pulled The Bible out and asked if you’ve ever truly met their special friend, our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

What do you want to hear, Bill?  Well, the sound of the door slamming and my echoing footsteps running down the hall!  But in lieu of that, I always liked the song “Playing in the Band” … is there a good version of that.  Thus ensued a debate about whether the one from Cornell in ’77, or Nassau Coliseum in ’81, or Boston Gardens in ’80, or … you get the picture.  (And I’m sure your average Deadhead would correct me in a heartbeat if this song didn’t appear in any of these shows.)  The decision was made, the tape was pulled …

And I then heard what had to be the worst fucking version of “Playing in the Band” I’ve ever heard!  That was the thing about Deadheads in the 80s.  That suitcase of tapes they would always pull out.  (Which never, and I mean never, had concerts for any other band.)  They somehow managed to find the worst, shittiest dubs of those concerts that sounded like noodly hippie jibberish coming out of a boombox.  I’ve since heard many very well-recorded, clear bootlegs of numerous Dead live tracks that have floored me … but back then, it just never happened.  That might have been my first exposure to Deadheads, but surely not the last.  And it was always the same scenario.  Not your typical Deadheads, not the dreadlocked, patchouli-reeking lost souls of the 80’s, pretending to be hippies, latching on to a mostly long gone culture that was much akin to bands like Sha Na Na in the early 70’s pretending it was still 1958.

The Deadheads I met with the tape cases were always relatively clean, hip, smart college kids who were otherwise very cool, insightful people to be around.  They just had the most inexplicably narrow taste in music that I could never fathom.  Sure, I can see having a radical reaction against the artifice of the 80s, the cold synthesizers, reverbed vocals, gated drums, fake-sounding horn sections, fretless bass … that hollow 80’s sound … I could understand revolting against that by retreating into 60’s music.  But what about Dylan, or The Band, or The Stones, or The Allman Brothers, or folk music in general, or god forbid, even embracing classic country as a giant “fuck you” to the pop of the 80’s?  Had Elizabeth and the photographer pulled out a suitcase filled with Hank Williams cassettes, that would have been one hell of a night.

It never happened.  In that instance, they put on that bootleg, it was like listening to stray cats fight and fuck in an alley filled with empty trash cans.  To top it all off, Elizabeth lit up a joint, and man, the world ended, as I knew she came from a very strict background, and dating this guy from the paper was her big rebellion.  I could picture the awkward Thanksgiving dinner coming up with the new boyfriend, this hang-loose, artsy guy in his mid-20’s who had that wonderful “whatever, dude, just give me a Kerouac paperback, and I’ll sit over here on the sofa, man, while you upper-middle-class folks stare daggers at each other” countenance … she was heading for her showdown with parental authority for maybe the last time in her young adult life.

Those were your higher-end Deadheads, Deadheads pursuing college degrees, as opposed to people completely stoned out of their minds, following the band on tour from one city to another, selling whatever wares they had or made to acquire ticket and drug money.  I didn’t get it then and still don’t now.  It just seemed so constricting, to be that focused on one band to the exclusion of all others, to create a lifestyle that served as monument to that narrow sense of taste.

For me, respecting The Dead after Jerry died was understanding where alt. country was born, although it surely wasn’t known as that at the time, and wouldn’t be known as such until the late 1980’s when punk would serve as another catalyst for that whole scene to happen.  But back then?  The first two albums by The Band.  Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty by The Grateful Dead.  The first few Neil Young albums, particularly with songs like “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Don’t Cry No Tears.”  That’s alternative country music.  It’s not rock musicians playing straight country, like The Byrds on Sweethearts of The Rodeo or Gram Parsons thereafter.  It’s not The Eagles pulling that similar sort of music in a very pop/rock direction.

It’s very raw, “country” music that touches on roots far deeper than rock music, but uses the immediacy and instrumentation of rock music to communicate those age-old truths.  The Dead had that quality in spades, as did The Band.  Neil Young was just an expert at pulling together those loose strands and presenting them as a beautiful, unified sound that no one could quite classify at the time, save to note that it was good, sometimes great.  A lot of 60’s artists paved the way for that to happen, you can even credit The Stones for helping it to happen (“Dead Flowers,” “Let It Bleed,” “Country Honk”).  Credence Clearwater Revival dabbled in this, but generally veered more rock … still, they had it, too.  It seemed like a general vibe at the time a lot of those great early 70’s rock artists could tap into, seemingly at will.

So, forgive me if I can live without the drugs, or the inane lifestyle choices, or the endless sea of bootleg concerts.  When I finally got into The Dead, it was solely based on the music, most of it thanks to Jerry, although Bob hit it out of the park every now and then, too.  Whatever faults the man had, they were easily forgiven by the music.  I have no idea what “kids today” make of the Dead.  As far as I’m concerned, kids in the 80’s were getting them all wrong, which turned me away from their music for a long time to come, much to my shame and discredit.  You couldn’t have paid me to listen to The Grateful Dead in the 80’s, as I had tons of very new and interesting indie music to digest, on top of going backwards and re-discovering the earth wasn’t flat via folks like Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Otis Redding, Chuck Berry, etc.  The main thing I eventually learned was to not judge music by the fans, otherwise I’d be listening to silence all the time.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Blue Shirt


(Author's Note: This story first appeared in Liesuresuit.net on 10/19/01.  I've since realized that Archive.org seems to be turning up page captures of certain old stories from that publication, but not sure how.  This is how I stumbled over this one again.  It's worth re-telling here.)
**

I couldn't stop staring at Lee's peach-fuzz mustache. Laid out in his coffin, he was wearing a dress shirt, hands folded over chest. It was my second wake, as my grandmother had died two years earlier, so I knew how to act. Stand over the coffin for a few minutes, contemplate the corpse, then move on for the next in line. I felt insincere and self conscious, but hadn't yet realized these were standard feelings in the presence of a corpse.

Lee threw me with that mustache. It was so cheesy looking, not like him at all. We had fallen out of touch in the latter half of our senior year of high school when he started dating a girl in that obsessive way teenagers and stalkers have in common. I hadn't seen him in the eight months since we graduated high school. The mustache looked fake. I wanted to reach down and tear it off, miraculously yanking him back to life and out of this charade. But I knew it wouldn't budge. Maybe it's one of those things, I thought, that hair and nails keep growing even after a person dies. But if that were the case, wouldn't Lee have a five o'clock shadow? The rest of his face was as clean and ashen as a tombstone. Even his acne had disappeared.

Of course, the real reason I focused on his mustache was to deny the horror of one of my friends dying at eighteen. According to the article in the local paper, his grandfather had found him in his mother's garage "working on his car with the motor running." This was in February, two days after Valentine's Day. The article vaguely stated there was "no foul play" in his death. But it didn't state that if he were working on the car, he would be doing so because it wasn't capable of running. If it was, he'd be tinkering with the engine, not spending the hours it would take for carbon monoxide poisoning. Lee was an intelligent kid, in no way stupid, which he would have had to been to work on a car in a closed garage. I had heard he had been drinking a lot around that time, so it's possible he could have gotten drunk, went out to the garage, started the car and passed out. But I knew that dead was dead, and it made no difference, at least to me. He had turned the key and faded himself out of this world.

I don't believe in ghosts, but I've been feeling haunted by Lee lately. I hadn't thought seriously about him for years, then a few weeks ago, I spent days dwelling on his death, to the point of tears I never bothered to shed back then. I keep picturing him, fading in and out of consciousness behind the wheel of that car, only instead of driving down a placid country lane at night, he's staring through the gloom at a cinderblock wall with tools hanging on it.

If there's one thing I've realized as I've grown older, it's that the mind plays tricks on us, especially with memories. I paged through my Class of '82 yearbook recently, and the first big picture is of the entire class gathered in a field behind our ugly pillbox high school. We're all decked out in red and blue, the school colors, kids grouped together in various social castes, cheerleader girlfriends perched on jock boyfriends' shoulders, stoners slouched over and completely ignoring the camera, the great middle class of kids in between saying cheese.

The legend of this picture is my friend Schwamy standing next to me. His shirt is an other-worldly, phosphorescent blue with what looks like a fingerprint on his left shoulder. His shirt was white that day. The photographer took six different pictures. In each one, Schwamy's whipping a bone at the camera, the middle finger of his right hand plainly visible on his left shoulder. I was doing the same, smirking the whole time, only I had my arms folded, with my hands wresting on my biceps, which ended up hidden behind the bodies in front of me. Schwamy had the shit luck of having his middle finger exposed every time. He had the fear of God put into him by the powers that be and was forced to pay for the amateurish alteration to the final picture. In that picture, my friend Tony is on my other side, smiling like a dork, and Lee's on the other side of Tony, grinning placidly.

It is now virtually impossible to see that picture without dwelling on Schwamy's bold statement, as all the other memories around that day simply involve getting out of class and standing in a field for half an hour. Some of what we did back then has become legend, retold in tall tales over the years, in bars and living rooms, relating to a time in our lives that our minds try to tell us was free and easy, but I can usually recall as being wrought with teenage insecurities. With Lee, it bothers me that I can hardly remember a thing about him, and we were good friends for six years. All I can think about is Lee dying the way he did, although random memories of him, like his trademark cackle, surface now and then like passing shadows. I recognize these as glimpses of what it will mean to be truly old.

There was a strong case for suicide. How many people accidentally die in closed garages with a running car? Lee's family had been plagued by bad luck. His parents split when he was a kid, with his father moving his medical practice out of town. He had two older brothers and an older sister. One of the brothers was a smart, well-adjusted kid who went on to become a doctor. The other died in a car crash when Lee was 12; my mother can still recall him crying hysterically at the funeral as Lee had idolized him. A few years later, his sister's boyfriend shot himself in the head in the driveway of his mother's house. All this transpired before Lee fell in love for the first time in our senior year. As with most kids at that time, he had no idea what he was in for. The girl was pretty -- a junior with a reputation for being clean-cut and intelligent. All the guys in our social circle, including Lee, were dicks with women, either being too shy to make anything happen, or so desperate that we smothered any potential relationship. Maybe it was supposed to be that way. The guys who did go steady came off as either lecherous perverts hiding their true selves from their girlfriends, or already docile husbands being dragged around by the balls.

Whatever Lee was with his girl, I had no idea, as they both floated into that stormy, elusive world of teenage love. Couples like this dotted the hallways between classes, necking openly and leaning as far into open lockers as they could to avoid teachers, the guy holding his arm around the girl's neck in a way that suggested a minute mood swing could find him strangling her. Most of them were doomed and blissfully unaware of it. When the inevitable break-ups occurred, stories circulated of vicious fights and occasional physical threats. That, or the wounded boy would do something melodramatic, like call the girl at 11:00 on a school night and play "Telephone Line" by the Electric Light Orchestra into the mouth piece.

It was routine behavior for a guy in love to become estranged from his friends, and Lee was no different. This coincided with our graduation, so that I completely lost touch with him. I went off to a local branch of Penn State, and Lee, like a lot of kids who didn't enter college or the armed forces, had no idea what to do with his life. All I knew is that he was living at home, with a minor reputation for drinking, and that he had broken up with his girlfriend -- hardly an uncommon scenario at the time. Whatever transpired between them, I had no idea, save that it was over. The next time I saw him was in a funeral casket.

A strange thing happened about six years after that. I had moved to New York and was in that annoying mid-20s phase that can only be described as counterfeit middle-age. I still hear it now with twentysomethings complaining about how they feel so old -- a concept laughable to anyone old enough to know better. What they're really trying to say is that they're clinging to a teenage sense of time -- and they are old by this pitiful standard -- but haven't yet adapted to the reality of time, that it keeps moving no matter how one perceives it. They're longing for a world that no longer exists for them. Couple this with the first few tastes of a real job with no end in sight, and it's easy to feel ancient at twenty-six.

I did what most people do in this condition: drink too much, thinking it somehow romanticized my plight. I wasn't alone -- the city was crawling with dimestore Bukowskis. We all had treasured stories of waking up on the sidewalk next to a puddle of vomit, or realizing the redhead at the bar we had thought was a dead ringer for Nicole Kidman more strongly resembled Carrot Top in the morning light.

It was in this state that I took the bus home one holiday season and went out drinking Christmas night with a few friends. Most of the bars were closed, but we found one open, a real dive we usually never went to, but had no choice. This bar had a back room with a pool table.

We went back there, and sitting in the shadows was Lee's old girlfriend. She had on a spandex leopard-skin top and a tight pair of jeans. Smoking. Still pretty, but harder around the eyes. It was a look I normally associated with older people who had been through the ringer a few times. She had road miles on her face. There was another woman with her with that same slightly used-car look.

At first, we kept our distance, but after a few rounds, we found our way into a booth and started talking about legendary teachers and their quirky habits. She had the accent: that thick Coal Region brogue of northeast Pennsylvania, a hybrid of guttural Eastern European and elongated Irish. That accent, to me, was someone's way of saying they were always going to live there, a sort of unconscious, working-class dedication to home, even if it meant scuffling for low-paying jobs in a place left devastated when the coal boom ended decades before we were born.

We were all flirting. The thought of scoring with Lee's old girlfriend intrigued me, although I knew there was nothing romantic about a drunken romp, no matter what the personal history. As we kept drinking, it became obvious that no one would be getting laid that night. And when that bridge was silently crossed, Lee's old girlfriend looked straight at me and said, "You were one of Lee's friends, weren't you?"

I could tell by the way she said it that she'd been sitting on that one all night, waiting for the right time to bring it out. We had gotten paired off at one end of the booth, and no one else could hear us. It wasn't an accusation, just an honest question. I said yes. The hardness drained from her face, and she told me as much as she was willing to tell. They were in love, things had gone wrong, and they simply had lost control of the situation. Nobody's fault, just the way things played out. She didn't say when they had broken up, or what the final blow was. Her accent fell away when she spoke about this, and I could see the studious girl she had been in school lurking just beneath the surface.

The worst thing she told me, and she wouldn't be specific, was that some people close to Lee had blamed her for his death. This had wounded her deeply, that her first love would always have this ugly coda. Her confession happened in the span of a Def Leppard song on the jukebox. At the end of it, she got up and went to the ladies room, and I just sat there staring at my bottle of Yuengling. She came back a few minutes later, and I could tell that she had been crying. No one mentioned Lee again, and the night played out in that hazy, late-night drunk manner of nostalgia and small talk.

The last thing I remember was stumbling to the car with my friends, looking over my shoulder and seeing her at the door of the bar at closing time. She waved at me and smiled. It was one of those frigid clear winter nights with no snow on the ground. I had long given up on church, much less the midnight mass my family would go to for Christmas. But there was something in her smile and the wave of her hand that made me think of those nights. It was tradition at those masses for the priest to hand out small boxes of chocolates to the children on the steps of the church as we exited. Now that I was so old, I was getting a hangover and mixed emotions instead.

At our 10th year class reunion, Lee, and a few other people from our class who had died young, were the objects of a fairly bizarre tribute. I went to the reunion over Thanksgiving weekend at a catering hall back home. Twenty-eight years old -- no longer "middle-aged," but closing in on the brick wall of thirty. This had the potential for a terrible time, but I ended up having a ball. It was great to meet old friends again, and a pleasant surprise to find that life had beaten us all down enough that even former enemies could sit down and commiserate over a few drinks.

But off in the corner was a table with four lit candles on it to commemorate those classmates who couldn't be with us that night. Never mind that only 60 people showed up from a class of over 200. There were plenty of living classmates who couldn't be with us that night because they hated high school and thought the reunion would be complete bullshit.

Lee was the second candle. The first was a kid named Kyle, one of Lee's friends, who had shot himself in the head at a bush party two months before graduation, inexplicably blurting out the word "cheeseballs" before pulling the trigger. The third was a girl named Carol who had a congenital heart problem all through high school and watched her days fall in numbers even then. The fourth was Danny, who was drunk driving home from a block party when he veered into the wrong lane, hit another car head on at top speed, and took two other people with him to the other side.

Some shit-assed DJs had been hired for the night, leisure-suited morning zoo types, and it was easy to ignore them so long as they kept a steady flow of Billy Squier, Styx and Journey. Near the end of the party, they started pulling out all the stops nostalgia-wise, and I could see they were going to close out the same way every high-school dance ended in 1982: Skynyrd and Zeppelin, baby, "Freebird" and "Stairway to Heaven." "Freebird" came first, and it got the dance floor crowded with nearly everyone, even when the song sped up and made the guys do more than slow dance.

 The song was met with a huge round of applause. From the stage, one of the DJs directed our attention to the table with the four candles, stating that this last song was for those of us who couldn't be here tonight, yes, the special ones who had left us early. I was sitting at a back table having a beer with an old friend when the gentle opening strains of "Stairway to Heaven" echoed through the hall. What happened next was a mass exodus from the dance floor. I could hear people muttering "fuck this" and "this is sick" as they passed on the way to the bar. The DJs had hit a raw nerve with the crowd, who didn't want to see these deaths exploited. The dance floor was empty before Robert Plant spouted his first line of lame hippie swill.

I hadn't seen that one coming, nor had the DJs, who snuck behind curtains and speakers when the song ended. There were scattered boos. Most people were milling around the back of the hall, men and women alike toting beers in both hands before the bar closed and muttering about the DJs' tastelessness. Ten minutes later, it was old news. I never liked that song. If people were going to be this offended, I reasoned, the DJs should have gone for broke, dedicated "Highway to Hell" to Danny at ear-splitting volume and beat ass out of there before they got ran out on a rail.

I hadn't been aware of it, but Lee is buried in the small Protestant cemetery on the hill in my hometown. He lived in another small town with its own cemetery a good 10 miles away, so this was a bit of a shock to me. In our town's cemetery, there used to be a wooden rail fence dividing the Protestant and Catholic sides. We used to love dangling upside down from it by the backs of our knees, even if it meant getting splinters. The fence is gone, but I gather that sense of separation is still there, embedded in family plots that will take years to fill out.

When we were kids, that cemetery represented life more than death to us. It was a great place to sleigh ride in the winter, careening our Flexible Flyers around the tombstones on daredevil runs to the bottom of the hill. There was a wide open patch on the Protestant side that served as a good football field. Summer nights found us playing jailbreak (a derivative of hide-and-seek brought to us by my Point Pleasant, NJ cousins) or telling ghost stories by those spooky graves with lit candles on them. I tried in vain to walk off my first drunk on the Catholic side late one night, shamefully vomiting next to my grandmother's grave and wiping the sweat from my brow with my grandfather's Memorial Day American flag.

People came there on Sundays and major holidays to pay their respects. This looked like hell to me. Distracted parents and their ungrateful kids badgering the shit out of each other. Older people weeping by their loved ones' tombstones, planting flowers and kneeling on the grass with dazed looks on their faces. Yapping dogs on leashes marking their territories on tombstone corners.

All they were trying to do was remember, and there's nothing wrong with that. I can see that to do so with honesty and clarity is the best tribute to someone who is gone. A subtle form of hell may be the inability to remember at all, as it leaves a sort of emptiness easily mistaken for freedom. I think of Schwamy's shirt and recognize that my memory has been like that bad touch-up job, substituting an unreal shade of blue for pure white, all to avoid that unacceptable middle finger of our youth.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Skunk-Weed Factor


It was the first thing I noticed stepping onto the subway train Friday morning: the unmistakable, pungent aroma of skunk weed marijuana.  I hadn’t noticed the faces coming off the train, only two or three people, none of them struck me as the kind of people who would get tuned up on a subway train.  But who knows.

Over the past few years, not one day has gone by when I’ve been walking the streets in New York City where I haven’t at least once, usually more than once, passed through an invisible skunk-weed cloud somewhere along the sidewalk.  It’s disturbing.  You like smoking weed?  That’s fine.  Doing it in public in broad daylight is another thing, just as wandering around getting drunk off your ass tends to get you in trouble with the law.

The odd part is I rarely see anyone smoking.  The few times I have, it’s always been surly, irritated looking street kids who make a point of making eye contact and don’t look mellow at all, dude.  They look like they want to be confronted over what they’re doing.  Meaning they look like assholes.  Meaning I leave them the hell alone, much as I’d like to be King Canute ordering back the sea.

This holds as true in midtown Manhattan as it does in Astoria.  I gather in Astoria what I’m smelling is someone getting high in his house or apartment.  I don’t think people smoking this stuff have any clue how deeply penetrating and lasting the odor of skunk weed is.  The "normal" smell of marijuana I've known for years is like jasmine in comparison.

Three instances underline this.  One was some jackass getting high in the bathroom of a Pennsylvania-bound bus a few months ago.  Usually it’s cigarette smokers who don’t realize that whatever you do in a bus toilet, everyone on the bus can smell.  (This is why I never shit on the bus unless it’s an absolute emergency, a tacit rule understood by touring musicians and other experienced bus riders.)  But there I was, headed back to PA, relaxing, listening to some Spoon on my headphones, when I’m overwhelmed with that shitbird, dorm-room stench of skunk weed.  I seemed to be the only person to know what it was!

The second was recently at the gym in Astoria.  In the locker room, getting changed.  My gym’s locker rooms, no matter which branch location, are often a mildly negative experience.  Sharing close quarters with overgrown babies stumbling through life with faux tough guy/weightlifter mentalities, acting like entitled private-school brats in terms of leaving towels everywhere, spitting gum into urinal guards, pissing on toilet seats and floors, expecting everyone to cater to them, etc.  I don’t recall this gym visit being particularly negative, but I do recall sitting there, getting dressed after showering, and once again being overwhelmed by the skunk-weed smell.  Jesus, I thought, is someone getting high in the bathroom?  Then I realized, it was the teenage kid next to me: the pot stench was coming off him in waves!  Obviously, he was getting high daily, probably multiple times a day, and the smell had simply absorbed in to his clothes and hair … maybe even his skin?

The third was last week at work.  Let that sink in.  High-powered Manhattan office.  We’re not as officious as in the near past, what with the advent of corporate casual, but it’s a pretty uptight environment.  I walk into the men’s room mid-morning …. BAM!  That overpowering odor.  I longed for the usual smell of shit in its place?  I’m used to stumbling onto the remnants of bad behavior in the men’s room – somebody shit on the floor last month, somehow, you tell me, as I didn’t see any dogs, bears or monkeys in sailor outfits in there previously.  But the skunk weed smell was the last odor I expected.  No one was in there.  We had a bunch of guys in the office that day, outside vendors, doing various construction projects.  Thus I’m assuming one of those guys went into a stall at some point in the morning and got high or, just as likely with the gym experience, the guy gets high so much he exudes that earthy skunk weed musk 24/7.

I make that connection with construction/blue collar and skunk weed because with the streets of Manhattan, as noted, while I smell skunk weed all the time on the street, I rarely see anyone nearby smoking.  How is this?  And I’m not talking a brief whiff.  I’ll be walking 25-50 feet and find myself navigating through that odor for a good half minute.  This is midtown Manhattan: office buildings, banks, drug stores, Fedex, restaurants, retail stores. 

My only explanation is the cars on the street, in particular the vans noting various construction companies on their sides (plumbing, air conditioning, carpentry, etc.).  I’m assuming guys are getting high in the vans.  There’s one spot on 36th Street, just north of Macy’s between Broadway and 7th Avenue, where that smell lasts almost the whole block!  The one constant I see is either these vans on the street or actual construction workers in their hard hats working on a seemingly endless project, who tend not to be the solid wall of braying, short-haired, working-class white guys of yore but more a melting pot of younger black, hispanic and white guys.  And I’m guessing instead of hitting the local Blarney Stone for a burger and a beer, they’re simply getting high at lunch.

Also, regarding cars: I’ll often get the skunk-weed smell while walking home over the 59th Street Bridge, something I do most Fridays during daylight savings time.  Not fellow pedestrians doing this.  Not even the assholes of the universe, bicyclists.  It’s coming from passing cars on the bridge.  People are getting baked while driving in rush-hour traffic in Manhattan … in case you already weren’t freaked out enough by the debauchery of NYC drivers!  Unlike the Simon & Garfunkel song, I am not left “feeling groovy.”

Am I wrong to be offended by all this?  Of course not, and I’m not asking your average person who would obviously agree with me.  I’m more so asking people who get high on a regular basis.  Are you cool with this?  Do you get high in public?  Around children?  Openly on the street during work hours?  While driving?  I can see getting high in a club parking lot late at night.  Or something like Mardi Gras or an outdoor concert.  Certain places in public make sense.  But just as I don’t normally see people stumbling around drunk on the streets of the city during my work day, I can’t quite grasp how this is somehow acceptable with marijuana instead? If smoking skunk weed in your apartment, fine.  But you should understand, people passing by on the street can smell a patch of skunk weed on the sidewalk in front of your apartment, like passing a house with a faulty sewage system.  Imagine living a floor above or below, or next door to this dude (always assume it must be a dude to be this far into weed), especially with young kids, and having that choice made for you.

Is this acceptable, or common knowledge that I’ve somehow missed?  I’m more than willing to cop to that as I’ve divorced myself from so much of popular culture, but I haven’t been reading anything in print or on the web that recognizes this daily ritual for the past 2-3 years.  No public outcry, no pleas for legislation to address the issue.  I guess that’s why I write some pieces, because I’m a bit flummoxed that I’m not parroting some clichéd, obvious story about stoners blatantly getting high in public circa 2017.  It’s only happening in New York?  I strongly doubt it (especially in Colorado)!  I’m surely not getting a “Viva La Revolution” vibe from all this either; it’s more a “suck my balls, bro” vibe from people who no longer seem to care about much of anything.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Chuck Berry's Inferno


March 18, 2017 3:15 a.m.  Wentzville, Missouri.  Chuck Berry, delirious from the medications his doctor has prescribed as he nears death, wanders down an alley adjacent to his house.  He’s wearing a captain’s hat and a white, knee-length night gown.  No shoes.  He’s carrying his electric guitar in a case in his right hand, and an empty brief case in his left.  One last show, he mutters to himself, get the cash up front.  Do what I do.  Get the hell out before they know I’m gone.

As he walks, a strong gusty wind picks up, gale force, causing Chuck to stumble.  His gown ripples in the wind like a flag on a pole as his captain’s hat blows away.  He starts coughing, feeling like he’s not going to make it more than a few steps before collapsing and dying.  This is it, he thinks.

The wind keeps pushing him down the road, and Chuck closes his eyes to avoid the dust and debris, bracing himself for what will surely be his last fall.  He still hasn’t fallen as the wind subsides, actually feels himself getting stronger.  He opens his eyes and realizes he must be dreaming.  He’s wearing his black show suit from 1957, complete with pressed white shirt and bow-tie.  A pair of black-and white wing tips on his feet, white socks.  He’s not just walking … he’s duck walking, something he hasn’t been able to do for decades due to his knees.  This is the most realistic dream he’s ever had, and he starts laughing.  As he gets his bearings, he realizes he’s somewhere in the deep South, can smell the delta on the breeze, a sugar cane field spreading out on the left side of the road.  Cicadas buzz in the trees.  Crickets chirp in the field.  A bullfrog belches in a nearby pond.

Chuck comes to a crossroad and feels déjà vu, although he knows he hasn’t seen this place in years.  There have been so many southern crossroads in his life, most just as vacant and directionless as this.  He notices a shadowy figure sitting in a lawn chair under a cypress tree, an empty lawn chair next to him.  As Chuck walks nearer, he realizes, that’s not a person sitting in the lawn chair.  It’s Satan.  Just as he remembers seeing him the first time as a teenager in 1947 when he got out of prison for armed robbery.  Long, lean, all red, with a human body, naked, with yellow eyes and black hair swept back in a pompadour, hooves instead of feet.  Chuck picks up the smell of sulphur, which he also remembers.  There’s a large, clear gallon plastic jug at his feet, filled with a clear liquid, and an upside-down stack of dixie cups.  The next smell on the breeze is moonshine, over-powering, almost like gasoline.

Satan: Hello, Chuck, I’ve been waiting for you.  Come, sit with me and imbibe on this summer night.

Chuck: It ain’t summer, Mr. Satan.  It’s coming up on spring.

Satan: It’s always summer in hell.  Here, it's always the heat, not the humidity.

Chuck: Hell?!  You’re telling me I’ve done gone to hell?!

Satan: Where else would I be?  I got rid of your night gown.  Made you look too much like an angel.  I’ve also given you back your youth …. you’re welcome.

Chuck: I guess I should thank you for that much.

Satan: No need to thank me.  It’s all part of the contract.

Just hearing the word “contract” makes Chuck freeze up.  He signed hundreds of them in his lifetime, most of them forbearing bad news masquerading as good.  Son, here’s that big contract, and that shiny new Cadillac I promised you, he could hear the record-company man from New York telling him in a parking lot in Manhattan.  Not quite realizing the cost of the Cadillac, and the biannual royalty checks that were promised monthly, were all he’d see of the fortune his music was making for these thieves.  Still, they afforded him travel, mass adulation, the illusion of prestige, women, but Chuck knew these were trinkets and baubles compared to the real money they were stealing from him.  Thus, the empty brief case, important in its own way as the guitar case.  Get the cash up front, contractually-agreed-upon fee, provide a service, then leave.  Still, it was coming back to him, that first contract he signed with Satan …

Chuck: You know, I was a minor when I signed that first contract back in 1947.

Satan laughs heartily.

Satan: In God’s court of law, we don’t fret over such trivial informalities.  You knew what you were doing.

Chuck: Yes.  I sold you my soul in return for talent, wealth and fame.

Satan: And as you saw, your talent started a social movement and made you world famous for about five good, productive years.  Just long enough to afford you a legacy you could build the rest of your life on.  That’s the standard issue rock-star contract, and you were the first.  Of many.

Chuck: Did they all come down to the crossroads the same way I did?

Satan: Oh, no, I make house calls.  As you recall, the bus was gone by the time you got released from prison, so you had to walk back to town, and that was the perfect time for me to introduce myself and make my sales pitch.  I got Lennon and McCartney in a church parking lot in Liverpool.  God, the Quarrymen were such an awful band.

Chuck: How is it that Lennon got shot down in 1980 and McCartney is still alive?

Satan: Lennon started pitching a fit around the time that he wanted out.  Even swallowed his pride and called up Allen Klein again to see if he could negotiate a deal with me.  Well, you know, I like Allen Klein, a lot.  He works for me now; he’s very good with numbers.  But he’s no Satan.  Originator of third-person self reference.  I took umbrage and created what you might call a Short-Term Modification Agreement that provided me with a more immediate Return on Investment.

Chuck: You had some maniac kill him.

Satan: Well, on the plus side, I gave him a legacy that was something else entirely.  And I don’t have to remind you of what Yoko Ono’s singing voice sounds like.

Chuck: Please don’t remind me.  I nearly murdered her on The Mike Douglas Show in 1972.    They cut to commercial but I had the guitar over my head and ready to bring it down on her before those hippies in Elephant’s Memory jumped on me.

Satan: Imagine being married to someone that clueless.

Chuck (singing): Imagine there’s no heaven.  I wonder if you can.

Satan (singing): No hell below us.  Above us only sky.

Satan laughs and takes a long sip of moonshine from his dixie cup.

Satan: I gave him that line, you know, back at the mansion in Tittenhurst, while he was busy imagining no possessions.

Chuck: Mr. Satan, if this is hell, what am I doing here?  This doesn’t feel like punishment.  I know I’m a sinner and have spent a life time not losing a minute of sleep over the bad things I’ve done.

Satan: Come on, now, Chuck, trying to get on my good side now.  There’s a reason I swooped down out of the sky and picked you.

Chuck: Why?

Satan: Partially for what you just stated.  Your unapologetic nature.  That’s a very admirable quality in hell: it’s essential to understanding pure evil.  And when you understand pure evil, you understand human nature.

Chuck: Understanding don’t make it right.  Or me any smarter.

Satan: No, but it gives you self-awareness, again, another essential quality.  You knew what you were doing when you committed those armed robberies.  When you transported that teenage girl across state lines at the height of your fame.  When you stopped paying your taxes.  When you started filming the women’s restroom in your restaurant.  Phew.  Chuck, if I was wearing a cap right now, I would be tipping it towards you.  Hats off, friend, your resume, while slight in comparison to the real heavy hitters of mankind, is impressive.

Chuck: I chose evil over good.

Satan: And that wasn’t even in the contract!  That’s why I like you so much.  I didn’t ask you to choose anything, not even in the fine print.  I simply made a transaction.  You could have lived your life like a complete saint afterwards, performing nothing but good acts and spreading charity the rest of your days.  And we’d still be sitting in these lawn chairs at the crossroads right now.

Chuck: If I’m such a lightweight, why the special treatment now?

Satan: That’s just it. The acts of your private life were minor evil.  Most of it was just chasing skirt, which is high-school stuff in hell.  Don’t you understand what you created with rock and roll?

Chuck: It seemed to do a lot of good in terms of creating harmony among different races.

Satan: In a very surface, menial way, sure.  You see how people are.  With supposedly open minds and hearts in their youth.  And they grow out of it.  More importantly, they spend the rest of their days covering their own asses, and a lot of that verbose teenage goodwill turns into empty nostalgia for the saints we never were.  But when you get down to it, all those hell-fire preachers at the time were right.  It was the devil’s music.  It’s mine.  I’m not even speaking as Satan now.  I’m speaking as an agent of God, a reluctant employee, if you will, sent off to work in a dusty corner of the basement, to do the dirty work, of enticing mankind to realize his free will and sometimes pay the consequences.

Chuck: I didn’t feel like I was possessed by any evil spirit when I was writing those songs.

Satan: You weren’t.  That was all you.  Again, I saw these things in you walking down the lonely two-lane black-top in 1947.  You understood the appeal of a teenage girl standing by a jukebox playing her favorite song.  Or how good hamburgers taste in America.  How good it feels to slam the pedal to the floor on a large, eight-piston automobile.  You could verbalize these basic human thoughts and emotions.  And this is where I came in.

Chuck: How?

Satan: I granted you the musical talent, particularly through the electric guitar.  And I’m glad to see you brought it with you!  But I took what T-Bone Walker, and Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed, and Ike Turner and so many others, were already doing, fed that raw talent into you, and allowed you to so perfectly marry those basically innocent thoughts and emotions onto my, the devil’s, music.  I should point out here, hell is not inherently evil.  Much as heaven isn’t purely virtuous.

Chuck: I take it you and God work on a sliding scale.

Satan: Well, yes, but in my case it tends to slide down.  The larger issue, for me, is that you showed the world the duality of evil.  It isn’t all “evil” in any traditional sense.  It’s sex.  Drugs.  Rock and roll.  Did you enjoy these things?

Chuck: Hell, yeah!

Satan: Good.  You were supposed to.  I should point out to you, most of the great musicians of the world, rock or not, are down here.  They either signed the contract early on or were just bad people to begin with, albeit highly-talented bad people.  Much of their talent was often tied into understanding that duality.  That what they were doing was pure in some sense, but not necessarily good or evil.  At their best, they moved freely between both and couldn’t tell the difference.

Chuck: This doesn’t sound like the Adolf Hitler, Charlie Manson type evil most people see as being pure evil.

Satan: For good reason: it’s not.  I’m not all evil.  I used to be an angel!  God picked me for a reason: he knew I understood this, inside and out, and that I would do exactly what he asked me to do.  I wouldn’t even call this temptation.  Was rock and roll, in and of itself, evil?  No, it was great music, electric guitars and drums, a beat you could dance to.  Music that felt like liberation and escape.  But those crazy preachers, back then, were tapped into that higher power and knew, correctly, that God did not create this.  I did.  And I didn’t create it in a void either.

Chuck: You created it here.

Chuck draws out his arm to take in the crossroads and the sugar cane fields in the dark of night.

Satan: That’s right.  The blues.  Sharecroppers with beat-up acoustic guitars, sitting on porches, a generation or two removed from slavery, three or four generations from African tribes, simply doing what their ancestors had always done: play music in the night to make sense of the darkness.

Chuck: Was Robert Johnson the first one you met at the crossroads?

Satan: Yes.  And he got ripped off, I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, gave him a raw deal.  One recording session in a hotel room that sounded like shit, and he goes and gets himself killed a short while later, basically chasing tail.  I felt so bad about him that I sent him to heaven when his time came,  God was pissed off at me for getting the first one wrong, but I got the formula down pretty fast, surely by the time I met you.

Chuck: So, you got me here, Mr. Satan.  Now what?

Satan: As I said, Chuck, I like the cut of your jibe.  I could make a challenging hell for you.  Oddly enough, The Mike Douglas Show with Yoko Ono offering her background vocal talents was the first thing that came to mind. 

Chuck: Oh, for the love of God, please, no. 

Satan: I don’t want to punish you.  I want you to work for me.  You signed a contract, after all, and consciously chose to come here.  If you hadn’t?  I’m not even sure you’d be here.  Aside from being a pervert, a bit of a prick and a little nuts, you weren’t really all that evil.  And the good you did was enormous in terms of showing the world how tightly intertwined good and evil are.

Chuck: What kind of work is there to do in hell?

Satan: Oh, you have no idea, it’s a 24-7 job, and then some.  Evil never rests, nor do I.  Which is why I could use some help.  I need someone to take over the crossroads.

Chuck: Are we talking in theory or right here where we’re sitting?

Satan: Right here.  There are no theories in hell.  This is where it all happens.  We’re somewhere in Mississippi right now, but this is just the template.  The crossroads could be anywhere.  Lennon and McCartney met me where two alleys crossed behind that church parking lot in Liverpool.  In a perfect world, every signing would take place somewhere like this, but, no, just two roads intersecting, to represent possibilities and fate, could be where a Walmart service road meets a McDonald’s drive-through lane in Wisconsin.  I’m not picky.  Many a soul has been signed over waiting for an order of large fries and a chocolate shake.

Chuck: But I’m not the devil.  People are going to come up on me and just see this young black dude sitting in a lawn chair.

Satan: That’s not the Chuck Berry I know!  It’s just as well they don’t come to the crossroads and see me.  I'm too cheesy now, too clichéd, they’ll think they’re being pranked.  Imagine coming to the crossroads to sell your soul, and Chuck Berry is sitting there.  That’s a much more cool, easy-to-grasp transition for most young musicians to make.

Chuck: What do I do exactly?

Satan: For starters, open up your briefcase.

Chuck opens up his briefcase to find a five-page document on legal paper.

Satan: That’s our boilerplate agreement.  No redlining allowed, no amendments, no subordination agreements, in short, none of that legal bullshit that makes hell such a miserable place with all the lawyers down here.  You just figure out what they want in terms of talent, wealth and fame – it’s almost always the same deal – and get them to sign the agreement in their own blood.  Bowie knife, small cut on thumb, fountain pen, yadda yadda yadda.  Once signed, they will be sent down the road they need to go, whether it takes them to a recording studio, or a stage, or just a quiet room to start writing their songs.  You can read it, again, to make sure you understand the fine points.  Understand the balloon payment.

Chuck: Balloon payment?

Satan: Their souls.  The final payment reflecting the last installment and all outstanding interest that’s accumulated over the years.  I’ll still handle the collection and closing procedures – you’re not ready for that – but you’d be the perfect front man to entice them into singing in the first place.

Chuck: Any chance I’ll get to heaven?

Satan: No.  And I think you’ll find after awhile, you’re not going to want to go there.  You’re allowed to do anything here that you did in life, when you’re not working.  Camera in the ladies room?  Buddy, not just that, I’ll send Marie Antoinette, Venus de Milo, Josephine Baker, Maude Fealy and Marilyn Monroe to your restaurant and make sure they get a belly on.  How do you like them apples?

Chuck: Oh, I like them apples.

Satan: Best of all.  Pull out your guitar.  Let me show you something.

Chuck takes his electric guitar from the case.  Satan stands and pulls up a long black vine that was at the base of the cypress tree.  Chuck had thought maybe it was snake, like in the Garden of Eden, but it’s just a power cord.  Satan plugs it into Chuck’s guitar.

Satan: Go on and play something.

Chuck strums the introduction to “Around and Around.”  The cypress tree radiates blue and gold light to match the sound of the chords played on the guitar.  The only remotely similar vision Chuck has seen in his life that compares is the Northern Lights he saw once while touring Norway.

Chuck: Wow!

Satan: Understand that when some young musician comes walking down the road, wherever that may be, if you’re plugged in and playing, that’s the first thing he’s going to see, this celestial shower of light, whether emanating from a tree, a building, wherever you find the power source.  If it isn’t enough that they recognize you as Chuck Berry, and most of them will, this sight will surely encourage them to sign their names on the dotted line.

Chuck: This is working out better than I thought it would.

Satan: Don’t get too excited.  If you hadn’t noticed, the overall state of music has been in a slow decline since your time, the innovations over the decades decreasing, musical trends dragging on for decades instead of a fruitful few years, the quality of the stars diminishing to the point where it seems like there’s a shit-flavored ice-cream factory in Orlando, Florida turning them out.  Your job is not going to be easy.  The devil’s AR man.  These days I can’t guarantee that even if you find someone with enormous raw talent that they’ll end up rich and famous.  They’ll more than likely end up making a modest living playing theaters and clubs, and spending a lot of time bitching about the three-digit checks they get from Spotify after their hit song gets 5,000,000 plays.

Chuck: Is that in the contract?

Satan: Yes.  And much like you, even when it mattered, these kids won’t read the contract! 

Chuck: Seems like you thrive on the stupidity of humans.

Satan: That’s one thing me and God have always had in common.

Chuck: One last thing.  How do I find this talent?  Where are these people?  How do they wander down this road and find me?

Satan: What do you remember of meeting me?

Chuck: Just that I was fresh out of prison, felt like my life was about to end before it even began, and that I had nowhere to go as I walked down that road.  I had no purpose.  I didn’t care about anything.

Satan: You were open to persuasion?

Chuck: Sure. I had nothing going for me.

Satan: Exactly.  That’s the key.  But let me show you how I found you.

A beach-ball size globe appears at Chuck Berry’s feet, glowing in the night, an exact replica of earth.  Chuck could hear faint snatches of music in the night: rock, jazz, classical.  Voices singing acapella in different languages.  Choirs.  Natives chanting.  Violins.  Synthesizer beats.  Mandolins strumming.

Satan: Touch the globe, but only with your index finger.

When Chuck touches the globe, the music that had been floating around in the night air ceases, and he faintly hears an acoustic guitar picking out slow chords.  His finger is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  He moves it towards America and hears nothing.  He traces his finger back towards Europe, and the guitar grows louder.  He pushes towards Scotland.  John o’ Groats, on the northern tip.  Chuck now hears the guitar as if the player is sitting next to him.  The playing is extraordinary: an odd mix of classical, celtic and acoustic blues, like nothing he’s heard before.  This kid’s good, Chuck thinks, he’s on to something.  The globe, slowly morphs into a room that Chuck finds himself viewing through a window.  He sees a skinny young man in t-shirt and jeans, red hair, bedraggled, playing in his bedroom in a small row house on the end of a rainy, windy block.

Chuck: Hey, Mr. Satan!

But Satan is gone, as is the Mississippi night.  Chuck finds himself at a cold, rainy bus stop in John o’ Groats, Scotland.  The rain is practically falling sideways with the wind.  Chuck is still wearing his show suit, sees his reflection in the bus shelter’s glass: he’s still young and handsome.  He’s cradling his electric guitar on his lap, his briefcase at his feet.  The town is desolate at three in the morning.  The bus stop is at an intersection: a closed fish-and-chip shop across the way.  Chuck hears footsteps approaching: the young man who has been playing guitar, out walking at night in his hometown.  Chuck plugs his electric guitar into an outlet on the bus shelter and starts playing, “Back in the USA.”  The glass on the shelter pulses with the glowing blue and gold light.  The young man is awestruck, partially by the light and sound, but also because there’s a black man playing electric guitar at a bus stop in John o’ Groats at three in the morning, and he looks and sounds a lot like Chuck Berry.  He approaches the bus stop.

Chuck: Hey, there, Liam.  It’s Liam, isn’t it?  Why don’t you come in out of the rain, and let me show you this here guitar.